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Essay

WHEN I CAME HOME from King’s Chapel on the Sunday I published an article called “Returning to Church” in the New York Times Magazine in 1985, I had a message from Kurt Vonnegut on my answering machine.

“This is Kurt,” his voice said. “I forgive you.”

My becoming a Christian again in mid-life (after many years of post-collegiate atheism) and Vonnegut’s humanist views became a running—and always good-natured—series of gibes between us. Several decades after his message of forgiveness I saw a poem he had published in The New Yorker, and fired off a postcard (a self-proclaimed Luddite, he scorned computers and email): “I see you have become a poet. I forgive you.” Almost by return mail I got a postcard back: “Not as bad as you becoming a Christian.”

Kurt was proud of coming from a long line of German freethinkers; his great grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, founded the Freethinkers Society of Indianapolis, and Kurt was named honorary president of the Humanist Association. He explained in his semi-autobiographical novel Timequake that “Humanists try to behave decently and honorably without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The creator of the Universe has been to us unknowable so far. We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community.”

If it turned out there was an afterlife, Kurt reserved places in it for people he cared about, including his first wife, Jane, and his longtime publisher, Seymour Lawrence, who he said “saved me from smithereens” by publishing his novel that three former publishers had turned down (Slaughterhouse-Five) and bringing his former books out in standardized new editions. Kurt loved to tell the story of how he let his heavenly sentiments slip before the wrong audience while delivering a eulogy for his predecessor as president of the Humanist Society, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. “I said I was sure that Isaac must be in heaven now,” he told me once with a smoky laugh and a cough. He elaborated on his lapse in Timequake, adding “That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles.”

That I had become a Christian in the largely humanist Unitarian Universalist Association (King’s Chapel in Boston is one of the few Christian churches in the UUA) provided Kurt with an added source of amusement. In 2003 he sent me one of his silk-screen drawings inscribed “Dear Dan Wakefield, Unitarian Universalist fanatic.”

Kurt told a General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association that “In order not to seem a spiritual paraplegic, to strangers trying to get a fix on me, I sometimes say I’m a Unitarian Universalist.” He also described himself as a “Christ-loving atheist” in that same talk; and in a Palm Sunday sermon at Saint Clements Episcopal Church in New York City in 1980, he said he was “a Christ-worshipping agnostic.” He belonged to no church, however, and made it clear that he was not a Christian. In a 1979 letter to his daughter Nanny regarding the wedding plans for his second marriage, he wrote, “It will be as secular as I can make it, since I am not a Christian of any kind. But it will take place in a church, because churches are so beautiful—and holy.” In 1999 he wrote Don Farber, his longtime friend, lawyer, and executor of his estate, “I am not, nor have I ever been a Christian, so I should not be given a funeral or memorial service under any sort of Christian supervision or in any Christian space….”

§

I first heard of Kurt Vonnegut when I went home on vacation from college to visit my old high school in Indianapolis, and told a teacher I wanted to be a writer. I was inspired when he said that one of our graduates had stories in the Saturday Evening Post, one of the popular “slick” weekly magazines of the fifties, a literary Valhalla where giants like F. Scott Fitzgerald had published. This writer named Vonnegut had written for our high school paper, the Shortridge Daily Echo, ten years before I did, which gave me hope. I went to the barbershop to search for his stories in magazines and eagerly read his novels when they started to appear, feeling a kinship with his humor and his conversational style.

I first met Vonnegut in 1963 while I was on a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard and a mutual friend in Cambridge invited me to dinner with Kurt and his wife Jane, who were living on Cape Cod. Kurt was a tall, shaggy, friendly man, and in the laughter-filled conversation at the table with eight guests, he and I didn’t talk about writing. We talked about high school. Our bond was that we both were failures at high school sports (we could laugh about it then, decades later).

My agent sent the manuscript of my first novel to ten publishers, including Seymour Lawrence, who sent it to Kurt for his assessment, and a few days later called me to read his telegram of response: “You must publish this important novel; get this boy in our stable.” Kurt was the godfather of that novel and became a friend and mentor for life. We read and (in his phrase) “boomed each other’s books,” had lunches at Jake Wirth’s German restaurant in Boston and assorted spots in midtown Manhattan after he moved to New York, often going back to his house to make phone calls to friends (surprising old friends with calls was a favorite pastime). Out of the blue, he loved to tell dumb jokes, and when plans went awry his comment was, “Just another Indiana catastrophe story.”

A year before his death in 2007 he came to a talk I gave at Saint Bart’s Episcopal Church and invited me to dinner afterwards at the bar of the Waldorf. When two of his fans approached our table to ask if he was “the real Kurt Vonnegut” he diverted them to talk about my new book. That was indeed “the real Kurt Vonnegut.”

§

In Boston in the sixties I began to see college students carrying dog-eared copies of Vonnegut’s books and quoting from them to friends. He was gaining an underground audience for his quirky, irreverent wit, his questioning of accepted wisdom, and his fresh ways of looking at the world. Because of his appeal to youth, Vonnegut was sometimes called a counterculture hero, but the label belied his real message. He scorned the easy answer and the quick fix, and wrote a scathing piece on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, called “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas.” After hearing the guru give a talk on Transcendental Meditation in a Cambridge hotel ballroom, Vonnegut wrote:

I went outside the hotel, liking Jesus better than I had ever liked Him before. I wanted to see a crucifix, so I could say to it, “You know why you’re up there? It’s Your own fault. You should have practiced Transcendental Meditation, which is easy as pie. You would also have been a better carpenter.

Vonnegut’s survival of the fire-bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war in an underground meat locker during World War Two gave a dark cast to his satire and inspired his great novel Slaughterhouse-Five. He scrapped conventional forms of narrative and made Billy Pilgrim, his hero, “come unstuck in time,” traveling to different dates and places in his life: Dresden, Indianapolis, Schenectady, Cape Cod, and “the planet Tralfamadore.” The refrain “So it goes,” repeated whenever a character dies, became a kind of brand, a tagline of casual dismissal. Its meaning changed when it was taken out of its context in the novel. Billy Pilgrim says the most important thing he learned on the planet Tralfamadore was that:

…when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, present and future, always has existed, always will exist…. When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what The Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.”

Despite his freethinking humanist views, no other major American novelist of the postwar era expressed such a fascination with Jesus, nor referred to him as often in his work (both fiction and nonfiction), as Kurt Vonnegut. Except for John Updike, a confessed Christian, and James Baldwin, who had been a junior minister at a Pentecostal church as a boy in Harlem, it is hard to think of any other leading writer of the era who mentioned Jesus at all, except as a curse word. (Baldwin told me that one of the publishers who rejected his autobiographical first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain,  said they’d be willing to publish the book “if I took out the ‘Jesus stuff.’”)

Vonnegut’s initial fascination with Jesus began when his Uncle Alex introduced him to Powers Hapgood, a fellow Harvard grad and nationally known labor organizer who came from a wealthy Indianapolis family. Kurt, who thought he might try to work for a labor union after he got out of the army, describes the lunch with his father, Uncle Alex, and Hapgood in July of 1945, in an autobiographical prologue to his 1979 novel Jailbird.

Hapgood, who had led picketers protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, fought with United Mine Workers organizers who he thought were too right-wing, and later was jailed for his role as a CIO strike organizer, had been in court that morning, testifying about violence on a picket line some months before. Hapgood told the Vonneguts that the judge asked him, “Why would a man from such a distinguished family and with such a fine education choose to live as you do?”

“Why?” Hapgood said. “Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

The Sermon on the Mount became a kind of keystone in Vonnegut’s talks, and pops up in novels and essays as well. In his sermon at Saint Clements he told the congregation, “I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by—and then we will have two good ideas.”

In his book of essays The Man without a Country, Vonnegut wrote that “For some reason the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But often, with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.”

Next to the Sermon on the Mount, the words Vonnegut quotes most often in his work were spoken by his fellow Hoosier, Eugene V. Debs, while running for president on the Socialist Party ticket: “While there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.” In Timequake, Vonnegut called those words “a moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount.” He quoted them again as an epigraph to his novel Hocus Pocus, which he dedicated to the memory of Debs, “a Socialist and a Pacifist and a labor organizer.”

Vonnegut found another “echo of the Sermon on the Mount” in the work of Mark Twain. In a talk he gave on the hundredth anniversary of the completion of Mark Twain’s “fanciful house in Hartford, Connecticut,” Vonnegut declared himself “a skeptic of the divinity of Christ…confirmed of my skepticism by Mark Twain in my formative years.” He then cited these words of the author as “a profoundly Christian statement, an echo of the Beatitudes:”

When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river….

“The river, of course, is life,” Vonnegut said. “Mark Twain is saying what Christ said in so many ways: that he could not help loving anyone in the midst of life.”

The idea of mercy came up in Kurt’s conversation as well as in his work. He told me several times that Marx’s famous line that “religion is the opiate of the people” was usually misunderstood. “Marx wasn’t putting down religion when he said that. He meant that in the era when rich people used opium to ease their pain and poor people couldn’t afford it, they needed something that would make them feel better, and religious belief really did that.” Kurt felt that was “merciful,” and though he declared himself “a scorner of the notion that there is a God who cares how we are or what we do,” he honored the role of religion in the life of believers.

“My great war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare, now dead, lost his faith as a Roman Catholic in World War Two,” Vonnegut wrote in Timequake. “I didn’t like that. I thought that was too much to lose…. I knew Bernie had lost something important and honorable.”

In his 1999 commencement address at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, Vonnegut told the graduates:

[Jesus’s] greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words. They are the antidote to the Code of Hammurabi, a formula almost as compact as Albert Einstein’s ‘E = mc2’…. Jesus of Nazareth told us to say these twelve words when we prayed: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….” And for those twelve words alone, he deserves to be called “the Prince of Peace.”

And how does Vonnegut reconcile his appreciation of Jesus and his message with his humanist beliefs that derived from the freethinking tradition of his ancestors? This is how he explains it to the graduates of Agnes Scott:

Some of you may know that I am a humanist or freethinker as were my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors—and so not a Christian. By being a humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.

But I say with all my American ancestors, “If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not? If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

It didn’t matter to Kurt whether Jesus “was God or not,” and to him it was clear that Jesus was not divine, but “the most humane of human beings.”

§

It was because of Vonnegut’s belief in the need for “extended families,” rather than a belief in Christianity, that he wrote to a friend that “When I, an atheist…hear from a man about to get out of prison who has no family waiting for him, who wants to know what to do with his freedom, I tell him ‘Join a Church.’” Then he added: “The risk of that, of course, is that he might join the wrong one, and end up back in the cooler for blowing up an abortion clinic.”

Kurt often wrote and spoke about the need for extended families, and in a 2000 letter to his friend Dr. Robert Maslansky he cited “this conclusion by the late Harvard theologian Harvey Cox: What made Christianity comforting to so many was the congregation. Surprise, surprise, an extended family, as essential to human health as food….”

Vonnegut believed that providing people with extended families explained “the fantastic growth of Christianity in a Roman Empire which was so cruelly opposed to it. The state religion formed crowds of strangers to propitiate gods in enormous buildings or plazas. Christians prayed with cozy little bunches of friends who met regularly in cozy little places, which felt much better….”

In a Playboy interview, Vonnegut said “I admire Christianity more than anything—Christianity as symbolized by gentle people sharing a common bowl.”

§

In Vonnegut’s early novel Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, a visitor to an imaginary island assumes that Julian Castle, who is the “founder of the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle,” is a “follower of Albert Schweitzer,” and tells Castle so. Castle replies, “In case you run across Dr. Schweitzer in your travels you can tell him he isn’t my hero…but thanks to him, Jesus Christ is.”

The visitor says, “I think he’ll be glad to hear it.”

Castle responds: “I don’t give a damn if he is or not. This is something between Jesus and me.”

There seems to be something between Jesus and Kurt Vonnegut—though it certainly is not a belief in his divinity (Vonnegut registers frustration that “they had to make him a God”), but an admiration, a fascination, and a kind of kinship with the man he called “my wild and loving brother” in what is surely one of the most surprising and seldom mentioned pieces of Vonnegut’s work: his rewrite of the words to the Requiem Mass.

Vonnegut had attended the world premiere of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Requiem, performed at Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (“an outspokenly Anglican institution”) in 1985. As Kurt explained in his nonfiction book Fates Worse than Death, “Nobody seemed to know or care what the Latin words meant or where they came from. We were all there for the music. (Or maybe because it was the chic place to be that night.)”

But Vonnegut cared, when he read in the program the English translation of the Latin words to the mass. He found the words that sounded so lovely when sung in Latin were “terrible…promising a Paradise indistinguishable from the Spanish Inquisition…sadistic and masochistic,” and he noted that “Lest somebody think I am mocking Holy Scripture…the mass was as frankly manmade and as nearly contemporary, taking the long view of history, as Hemingway’s ‘Green Hills of Africa.’”

When he got home from hearing (and reading) the Requiem Mass, Vonnegut “stayed up half the night” writing his own version, with a more merciful message: “I got rid of the judges and tortures and the lions’ mouths, and having to sleep with the lights on.” Kurt changed the opening and closing line, “let light perpetual shine upon them,” to “let not light disturb their sleep.” He explained that he didn’t want his beloved sister Alice and his first wife Jane and all the other dead people to have to try to “get some sleep with the lights on.” In his translation, Vonnegut wrote of Jesus:

My wild and loving brother
did try to redeem me by suffering death on the cross:
Let not such toil have been in vain.

Making the Requiem Mass more merciful was so important to Vonnegut that he found a specialist in church Latin to translate his words and a composer to set them to music. After being turned down by several churches in New York City, his mass was given a premiere by “the best Unitarian Universalist choir in the country” in Buffalo, New York.

That was quite a labor for a nonbelieving humanist.

Vonnegut was sixty-three when he translated the Requiem Mass, and five years later he wrote to his lifelong friend Ben Hitz, “I am now, because of my age and my steadfast lack of faith, at least a bishop in my own religion, German freethinking, and am, in fact, treated as a peer by the likes of Paul Moore [then Episcopal Bishop of New York], who has become one of my closest friends. I also get along fine with Jesuits. It wasn’t until I was sixty-four [and] I came across a statement by Nietzsche that I could articulate why committed Christians and Jews sometimes find me respectable: ‘Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism.’”

§

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim endures much of what Vonnegut endured as a prisoner of war, and toward the end of the book the narrator says “Billy cried very little, though he often saw things worth crying about, and in that respect, at least, he resembled the Christ of the carol: ‘The cattle are lowing, / the Baby awakes, / But the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.’” Those words of the carol are the epigraph to the novel.

In the last few years of his life, Vonnegut turned more to drawing and artwork, feeling like Melville’s whalers “who had said absolutely everything they could ever say.” As well as his drawings—on which he collaborated with Joe Petro III to make silkscreens—Kurt made posters for friends expressing his views. The year before he died he sent me a drawing he had framed of a golden flower with words written in blue above it: “Blessed Are the Happy-Go-Lucky Girls and Boys.” Printed by the date (1/18/06) was the inscription “A New Beatitude for My Christian Friend Dan.”

I called to thank him and ask where he got the phrasing and what exactly it meant. He explained that he had never liked the Beatitude “Blessed are the meek,” because “it reminded me of a hang-dog bunch of people, which I didn’t much like. Then someone showed me a French Bible that instead of ‘meek’ said ‘Blessed are the debonair.’ I translated that as ‘Happy-Go-Lucky Girls and Boys.’”

If I had to sum up Kurt Vonnegut’s own theology, I would quote a passage from his novel God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, when the protagonist plans a baptismal speech he is asked to give for his neighbor’s newborn twins:

Hello, Babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

I would call that rule, like the words Kurt quoted of Eugene V. Debs, a “moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount.”

I didn’t know until I read and assembled his letters that Kurt had written a Christmas carol at the request of Lukas Foss, a well-known composer of classical music who had written an opera based on the Mark Twain short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Kurt sent a copy of the carol to Don Farber with a note that said, “Lukas Foss and I have talked for some years about doing some hymns and carols together. Here is my first serious try.”

Dear Lukas—

I am not a Christian either, but you have to admit it’s one hell of a story. So:

Angels said come to this stable rude,
Where deep in the hay, which is cattle’s food,
Lies a baby who sleeps full of milk so sweet,
More precious than rubies from head to feet.
Here is my guide, sang the Angels, to Paradise.
Am I foolish to come here, or am I wise?
 
This is the place,
He is here, he is here.
Those who would kill him
Are near, are near.
So keep him our secret,
So dear, so dear
And the mother’s name is May-ree.
 
Starlight did wake me from deathlike sleep
So filled me with joy I did laugh and weep.
I did follow the star to this rustic shed, That my starving soul might at last be fed.
Here is my guide, said the starlight, to Paradise.
Am I foolish to come here, or am I wise?
 
This is the place,
He is here, he is here.
Those who would kill him
Are near, are near.
So keep him our secret,
So dear, so dear.
And the mother’s name is May-ree.

Season’s Greetings,
Kurt Vonnegut


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